By Timothy Gunsaulis, a summer 2023 intern with CAIR Oklahoma. A senior at Oklahoma State University (OSU) in Stillwater, Oklahoma Tim is majoring in Political Science with a minor in Spanish. 

Over the past few months, a drama has been unfolding between Governor Stitt and the state legislature regarding the legislature’s efforts to extend certain tribal compacts, which were set to expire in December of this year, until the end of 2024. Two bills, SB26 and HB1005, sought to extend the life of compacts signed between the State of Oklahoma and the tribes regarding taxes on tobacco products and vehicle licensing/registration respectively. The two bills were passed by the House and Senate during regular session and sent to the desk of the Governor, where they were vetoed on May 31st. During the course of the summer, the legislature has been in special session working to overturn the vetoes on the bills, which they finally did on July 31st. Following the final vote to override the vetoes on the morning of the 31st, Governor Stitt filed a lawsuit in the Oklahoma Supreme Court against the House Speaker Charles McCall and Senate President Pro Tempore Greg Treat in an attempt to nullify the pieces of legislation by reason of being unconstitutional.

The legislature chose to act in order to avoid the possibility of these compacts expiring before the Governor and tribes can reach a deal in negotiations of new compacts. Leaders of the House and Senate expressed concerns for potential lost revenue if new deals are not struck as a key reason for extending the compacts, estimating that $57 million could be lost from the state’s budget without compacts in place to collect tobacco taxes and registration fees from tribal entities. Additionally, lawmakers said that they wished to give more time to the tribes and Governor to develop a deal that benefits both parties. Gov. Stitt and leaders of tribal nations have been in talks to renew these compacts, but little progress has been made thanks to existing tensions between the parties.

The Governor’s argument for the vetoes and now the lawsuit is that by extending these compacts for another year, the state legislature is overriding the Governor’s authority to enter into compacts with the tribes. Several legislators who oppose the veto override cited Article 6 Section 8 of the Oklahoma Constitution, stating that the Governor has sole authority to conduct business between the state and the tribes. Two decisions by the Oklahoma Supreme Court have been offered to contest this position by the pro-override members of the legislature: Treat v. Stitt 2020 and Treat v. Stitt 2021. In both cases, suits were filed by Greg Treat against the Governor for his failure to receive proper legislative approval prior to entering into gaming compacts with the tribes, and in both cases, the state supreme court ruled against the Governor, establishing what many legislators believe to be legitimate legal basis for their efforts in extending the compacts.

Underlying many of the Governor’s and other legislators’ objections to the override are concerns related to the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2020 decision on McGirt v. Oklahoma, which found that tribal reservations covering much of eastern Oklahoma still exist for the purpose of exercising criminal jurisdiction over tribal citizens. The Governor’s worry is that because of the interpretation of ‘Indian Country’ from the McGirt decision, the language in existing compacts will allow the tribes to skirt paying taxes on tobacco sales in the eastern half of the state, resulting in a serious loss of revenue. More than just revenue loss though, the fear is that in a post-McGirt Oklahoma the state will continue to lose authority within its borders and many more issues will fall to the tribes in the newly recognized reservation lands, muddying the waters of jurisdiction.

There is nothing new about the tension between the Governor and the tribes or the Governor and the state legislature. This latest episode only serves to worsen already difficult relationships at a time when cooperation and understanding between the state government and the tribes ought to be a priority. In a post-McGirt Oklahoma, there are some valid questions to be answered about how the decision affects the relationship between tribal nations and the state, but in the three years since the decision there has been no evidence to support the Governor’s assertion that tribes will take advantage of compact language to avoid taxes to the state, especially in the one-year period of these extensions. The legislature’s decision to act demonstrates a lack of trust in the Governor’s ability to negotiate fairly with the tribes within the remaining months of 2023. The ultimate decision on the legality of the extensions will be left up to the Oklahoma Supreme Court, and their decision one way or the other will have serious consequences for the future creation of compacts between the tribes and the state.

For those living in Oklahoma, this ordeal highlights dysfunction in important areas of the state government. When the legislature and executive are consistently at odds with each other on important issues, the needs of the people of the state are not met in a timely manner, or at all. Additionally, when the state government cannot or will not cooperate with tribal partners, both tribal and non-tribal citizens lose out on opportunities to benefit from one another. Citizens deserve to trust that their elected officials are capable of good governance, even when there are disagreements about the best way to move forward. Though this drama has not yet reached its conclusion, it is certain that however the story unfolds, if tensions persist between the relevant parties, the real losing side will be the people of Oklahoma.